Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ahead of His Time

Last week, I finished reading Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, by neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio. Very thought provoking. There is not a lot about Spinoza’s work per se, but enough (specifically, his Ethics) to compel me to check out more about this under-appreciated thinker.
Many things we know about the feeling brain, thanks to in-depth studies, often involving high-tech machinery, Spinoza figured out in his little garret in 17th-century Amsterdam, with nothing more than pen and paper and an amazing imagination. For his sins, he was exiled from the local Jewish community, and marginalized as philosopher for decades. (But that's another story.)
What drew me to the book was the neuroscience. What kept me interested, despite a frequently opaque writing style and difficult subject, were the applications to my larger project – of which this blog is a small part.
Damasio speaks of the balance of the individual and society (although those are my words), and the role of feelings in the lives of social animals such as ourselves. Like some of the researchers I have talked about in previous posts, he notes how we have evolved to feel empathy, guilt, shame, regret, loneliness, and so on because of their utility in social interactions. Such traits may have meant the difference between life or death at one time (and still do, though perhaps not so dramatically).
The study of feelings has been the stock in trade of psychologists of all stripes for as long as psychology has existed as a profession. More recently, brain scientists have joined in, tracing emotions to this or that area or structure, and postulating – as Damasio does – why it is present in all healthy human beings, and what happens when it is damaged or absent. But, as he says, “Any complex mental function results from concerted contributions by many brain regions at varied levels of the central nervous system rather than from the work of a single brain region conceived in a phrenological manner.”
It’s funny that he alludes to phrenology. That was the one-time practice of reading a person by the bumps on the skull. There are old drawings of bald people with areas of the skull labeled as this or that trait; sometimes, reading neuroanatomy, one cannot help but recall these early attempts at understanding the last frontier of scientific endeavor. But we have made tremendous strides since then - even if vast universes of discovery remain.
More about this, and related studies, another day.

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